Potted Plant Parenting

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As a tennis coach, I've seen my fair share of "Helicopter Parents," who nurture relentlessly and hover over their child's every move. They carefully watch each lesson, practice and match. Some are reinforcing messages, adding their own opinions and even contradicting the coaches’ information. While such behavior is timeless and widespread, it has accelerated in the last several years, as I see more parental hovering on the tennis court today than ever before.

Why is so much overzealous parental behavior happening now?

In considering this question, we need to examine some complex issues that will be only touched upon here:

►Is the community of psycho crazy sports parents growing or are other, larger forces at work?

►Has the way parents see their role in their child's tennis development changed?

►Has culture shifted?

►Do parents see the role of the tennis coach in their child's development differently?

As historical context to understanding some of these questions, it's useful to remember the old English proverb that "Children should be seen and not heard," which argued for the idea that children should not speak until spoken to, especially around adults. This idea was popular as recently as the 1960s, with the mythology that too much parental affection was emotionally damaging to children, and babies would become spoiled if held too much. Modern psychology in areas of childhood development and developmental biology have debunked these myths. We learn and socialize as a result of the attachment process that starts during infancy. Nurturing by caregivers is critical to the development of intelligence, independence, emotional health and moral development.

While Helicopter Parents are almost always well-intentioned and often astute, they can be counterproductively distracting to their child's learning environment and autonomous love of the game. Groundbreaking new studies suggest that it is parents who "should be seen and not heard" by being around and available to their children with no agenda, no expectation and no pressure. Psychologist Lisa Damour calls such parents "Potted Plant Parents" and her philosophy is supported by a recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia which examined 3,000 middle- and high school-aged students. The conclusion of this study is that parents can best help their children to feel safe, secure and empowered by providing a safety net of emotional support by being quietly present. Sometimes less is more, and the value of less direct parental interaction with more passive support is the significant finding of this study.

It's no secret that tennis professionals complain all the time about how frequent parental interference in the coaching process is one of the biggest obstacles to the development of aspiring players. While I agree in theory with this complaint, I don't blame parents for their concerns. Many parents recognize that they are not experts, but they also do not have great confidence that we as teachers are experts, or even competent and well-intentioned. In some cases, they could be right. As professionals, maybe we make coaching conclusions before we perform assessments? Maybe we don't formulate a coherent and carefully-constructed plan? Perhaps we don't communicate clearly? Do we impose our values which conflict with the values that players receive at home? Maybe we are selfish and full of ego and prioritize selling and promoting over educating and empowering?

As tennis professionals, it is our job to teach both parents and players about the achievement of the best road to tennis success. We must facilitate the best environment for players to succeed both on and off the court. We must plan and prepare a pathway of success for our students and must be competent, open-minded, selfless and humble to do this. The time and financial costs to families of providing support to develop a top player is high, and the rewards, especially in college opportunities, are great. Failure is more than a missed athletic opportunity: It can mean a lifetime of diminished fitness, education and self-actualization. The stakes have been raised and the educational leaders of tennis must step up.

Ultimately, we cannot prevent Helicopter Parents from hovering, but we can steer them in the right direction.